On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position

Principled yet pragmatic, Lincoln's stand on slavery offers a basis for a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice
Pro-Choice Republicans

What about the Republicans? Where are they headed? It is hard to say. As already noted, on a range of domestic issues the party seems to have embraced a philosophy of possessive individualism that has a distinctly pro-choice ring to it, and in this respect is no longer the party of Lincoln. Lincoln's Republicanism, as Greenstone pointed out in The Lincoln Persuasion, combined a Whiggish sense of national responsibility with a New England ethic of moral perfection. Then as now, Republicans believed in capitalist enterprise and fiscal prudence—but in those days they put them in the service of broader humanitarian goals. "Republicans," Lincoln said, "are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar." This was true for a long time in the Republican Party. Theodore Roosevelt's notion of "stewardship" had traces of the Lincolnian synthesis of humanitarianism and institutional responsibility; early in this century many of the Progressives came from Republican backgrounds. Even in the 1950s Eisenhower's brand of "modern Republicanism" faintly echoed the old tradition of active government and moral leadership. Someday, I think, it will be rediscovered. It is a noble tradition.

Right now, though, it is out of season. The Republicans are on a laissez-faire roll. The strategy of their leaders is to marginalize right-to-lifers, get their plank out of the platform, and avoid any more messy debates over social issues. They see a golden opportunity to win more recruits by appealing to yuppies and other libertarians who hate taxes and welfare but like "abortion rights." What can be said to these shrewd Republican leaders? In shrewdness and wiliness it would be hard to match Abraham Lincoln. Let us, then, listen to Lincoln as he warned against weakening his party's anti-slavery plank in order to win the votes of "moderates." "In my judgement," he wrote to an Illinois Republican official in 1859, "such a step would be a serious mistake—would open a gap through which more would pass out than pass in." And so today. Many Reagan Democrats came to the Republicans in the 1980s because their own party deserted them on social issues. If the Republicans do the same, many will either drift back to the Democratic Party (many of these, remember, are former New Deal Democrats, rather liberal on economic issues) or join a third party or simply drop out (many evangelicals were apolitical before Reagan came along). For every pro-choice yuppie voter the Republicans won, they might lose two from the "religious right."

In truth, however, no one can be sure about the gains and losses resulting from one position or another on abortion, and such considerations are beside my main point, which is this: It is time at last in America for the abortion issue to be addressed with candor and clarity by politicians of both major parties. There needs to be engagement on the topic. Right now, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, the arguments pro and con on this issue are "incommensurable" —they sail past each other; the two sides are talking about different things. Part of the blame for the mindless "emotivism," as MacIntyre calls it, can be attributed to the more extreme elements in the pro-life movement, who have stifled reasoned argument with their cries of "Murder!" But much of it results from the squeamishness of pro-choicers, who simply refuse to face up to what abortion is. Nervousness, guilt, even anguish, are all hidden behind abstract, Latinate phrases. Only rarely does reality intrude. That is why Christopher Hitchens caused such a howl of pain when he published his Nation article on abortion. His crack about the "possessive individualism" of pro-choicers undoubtedly caused discomfort, but what must have touched a raw nerve was his description of abortion itself. After sympathizing with the emotions of rank-and-file members of the pro-life movement—with their "genuine, impressive, unforced revulsion at the idea of a disposable fetus"—Hitchens added,

But anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows that emotions are not the deciding factor. In order to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain and, whatever the method, break some bones and rupture some organs.

Here, then, is the center of it all. If abortion had nothing to do with the stilling of heartbeats and brains, there would be no abortion controversy.

Suppose, now, I were to define the controversy in this manner: It is a fight between those who are horrified by the above-mentioned acts, considering them immoral, and those who are not horrified and do not consider them immoral. "Unfair," most pro-choicers would say. "We are also horrified. Have we not said that we abhor abortion? Have we not called it wrong? Have we not said it should be rare?" All right, then, let the debate begin: How rare should it be? How can we make it rare? In what ways, if any, can public institutions be used to discourage abortion? If abortion means stilled hearts and ruptured organs, how much of that can we decently permit?

In this debate I have made my own position clear. It is a pro-life position (though it may not please all pro-lifers), and its model is Lincoln's position on slavery from 1854 until well into the Civil War: tolerate, restrict, discourage. Like Lincoln's, its touchstone is the common good of the nation, not the sovereign self. Like Lincoln's position, it accepts the legality but not the moral legitimacy of the institution that it seeks to contain. It invites argument and negotiation; it is a gambit, not a gauntlet.

The one thing certain right now is that the abortion controversy is not going to wither away, because the anguish that fuels it keeps regenerating. Some Americans may succeed in desensitizing themselves to what is going on, as many did with slavery, but most Americans feel decidedly uncomfortable about the stilled heartbeats and brains of 1.5 million human fetuses every year. The discomfort will drive some portion of that majority to organize and protest. Some will grow old or weary, and will falter, but others will take their place. (I have seen it already: there are more and more young faces in the annual "march for life.") Pro-life protests will continue, in season and out of season, with political support or without it. Abortion, a tragedy in everyone's estimation, will continue to darken our prospect until we find practicable ways of dealing with it in order to make it rare. But before we can even hope to do that, we have to start talking with one another honestly, in honest language.

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